For ‘Tenenbaums’ design team, it’s all in details

Film recreates New York in its own vision

Designed down to the spots on the Dalmatian mice, the majesty of “The Royal Tenenbaums” is found in its attention to the minute details that ground the eccentric family of former geniuses firmly in reality, albeit a reality that is completely fictitious.

Shot in Gotham, the setting is a kind of parallel New York haunted by the styles of the late ’70s to early ’80s. It’s this kind of parallel universe that inspired both the Art Directors Guild and the Costume Designers Guild to include the film among their respective nominees for contemporary film achievement.

“(Director-co-writer Wes Anderson) was very particular about the fact that the city wasn’t New York. If you watch the movie closely, you’ll notice that we changed out all the street signs,” says art director Carl Sprague. “Even in choosing locations, we avoided picking any recognizable New York landmarks. It serves to sort of mythologize the story a bit.”

However, the locale did make finding and building the film’s approximately 250 sets a challenge. Central Park Zoo became the rain forest of New Guinea and a quarry in New Jersey became the Andes. For the vignette of tennis player Richie’s televised breakdown, they restored Forest Hill’s tennis stadium, putting down 10,000 square feet of AstroTurf.

Anderson found the family’s house in Harlem’s Hamilton Heights a year in advance, derelict but with intact Tiffany glass windows. The residence was completely restored and doubled as a set and ministudio.

The look was built on a such a small scale that it mostly hits the viewer on the subconscious level. A pink theme runs through the interior of the house and in such apparel as Royal’s ties, Etheline’s suit and Margot’s 4½-fingered glove. Giraffes haunt Margot’s childhood, inhabiting her room’s wallpaper, her play and the museum she runs away to with Richie. And some visual oddities, like the boar in the game closet, provide comic relief.

“(Anderson) had a rather specific group of ideas that we carried out. This wasn’t something that was sort of just thrown together,” says production designer David Wasco. “Everything was anguished over and scrutinized and redone if it wasn’t absolutely what he had in his mind.”

“From the beginning, Wes said that he wanted this to be highly stylized, so I knew I could go pretty far,” says costume designer Karen Patch, whose ’70s duds were inspired by historical figures like Kofi Annan and Bjorn Borg. Her attention to detail resulted in the use of such fabrics as cashmere, camel hair and tweed.

“We’ve worked together so many times before,” says Patch, “that we can cut through the red tape and know what to anticipate.”